Be sure to read about the eventual resolution of this debacle here.
Wow. What a day. I’m 47 years old and got my first camera, a Canon AT-1, when I was 15 of so. In the intervening 32 years, I’ve made photographs both professionally and for my own personal enjoyment in 50 countries and in most of these beautiful United States of America. Photography has allowed me to see and experienced a lot of things, and yesterday I had an experience that I won’t forget for a long time. I’ll bet that some of the other folks involved – including but not limited to my friend Carlos Miller, various employees of a Miami company called “50 State Security,” three officers from the Miami Police Department, two officers from the Miami-Dade Police Department, and a gentleman who identified himself as an agent of the federal Department of Homeland Security – won’t forget it for a while either.
Where to begin? Those of you who are professional photographers can doubtless recount stories of this person or that person attempting to stop you from making photographs. It’s a common problem, and one that’s been around probably since Matthew Brady’s day. In some cases, these individuals have been well within their rights to stop us from photographing. Just off the top of my head I recall when:
- The police in Cotonou, Benin, a small country in West Africa, told me to stop photographing on a city street back in the mid-1990’s and I had to comply.
- A soldier armed with an AK-47 near Kikwit, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), stopped me from making photographs of a lightning storm from a bridge in 1993 and I did as I was told.
- People in authority or who claimed to be in authority have asked or told me to stop photographing in Outer Mongolia, Bangladesh, Mozambique, India, Sri Lanka, Brazil, and probably in other countries. I forget.
- As recently as March of this year, while I was on assignment in Lagos, Nigeria, police officers detained me after they saw me making photographs of the city skyline from a public roadway. Though I stopped making pictures, I refused to get into their police vehicle and go to the station. We ended up in a bit of a stalemate for an hour or so, until they said I was free to go. (This is a story that ends very humorously and I will blog about it at another time. The police officers and I ended up being quite good friends!)
I generally stop making photographs, at least for a while, when I’m told to do so during a visit to a foreign country. Why? Well, because the rights of individuals in the countries I named above, and indeed in every country in the wide world except here in the US of A, aren’t protected by something called the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. That’s the little clause that here in America the Beautiful famously establishes individuals’ rights to freely assemble, to speak freely, to express themselves freely in manners other than speech, and to exercise freedom of the press.
Which brings us back to yesterday’s excellent adventure.
As a graduate student in the multimedia journalism program at the University of Miami’s School of Communication, I was assigned a project as part of Professor Sam Terilli’s 2010 Media Law and Ethics Seminar (CNJ 614) that called upon me to create a report concerning one of the class topics – the “legal and ethical issues concerning First Amendment theories and practices regarding defamation, privacy, freedom of information, free press vs. fair trial, reporter privilege, access to media, intellectual property, obscenity, broadcasting, and new media.”
Back in October or so, 2009, I had been harassed by a security guard because I brought a camera into Miami’s Overtown Metrorail station. At the time this seemed to be really unfair, unkind, and, most of all, quite unconstitutional, so for the media law assignment I decided to explore the rights that a person has, or does not have, to make photographs on, in, and around Miami-Dade Transit’s (MDT’s) Metrorail system.
Though I already felt that I had a pretty good layman’s understanding of the relevant laws, and I was certain that Professor Terilli had taught me well in CNJ 614, I wanted to double and triple check my facts. After a little work on Monday, June 28, I found that, as Victor Perlman, general counsel for the American Society of Media Photographers, was quoted saying in this NPR story, “If [someone is] photographing something that is visible from a public space while on a public space, there are virtually no laws that really prohibit that.” I know that Mr. Perlman is very good at what he does, and his statement confirmed my layman’s understanding of the law.
With this in mind, I began to exchange e-mails and phone calls with Eric Muntan, MDT’s Chief of Safety and Security and one of the nicest and most helpful public servants I’ve ever encountered. Mr. Muntan not only responded to my e-mails quickly, he sent me a copy of section 30b-5(2) of the Miami-Dade County Code, which regulates commercial activities on or around MDT property. Mr. Muntan also rearranged his schedule on Tuesday, June 29, in order for me to conduct a telephone interview with him at 7:00 am. As we began the interview, he graciously consented for me to make an audio recording of the conversation to ensure the accuracy of my contemporaneous notes. Would that all public officials were so willing to assist their constituents.
During our discussion, Mr. Muntan shared with me that his first concern is for the safety and security of Metrorail’s passengers, but he also expressed a sincere appreciation for the fact that some people, for one reason or another, will want to make photographs of the metro trains and facilities and that MDT needs to accommodate these folks. To this end, Mr. Muntan said, “We bend over backward to accommodate any type of media request that we can. Heck, we’ve shut down the system for Burn Notice and we did Bad Boyz II down here.” He explained that while commercial photography on Metrorail property is prohibited without a permit, there is no such prohibition against photography that is personal, journalistic, or, in his words, “Johnny Tourist” photography. When I asked him how his officers distinguish between commercial photography and personal photography, he said, “If you tell us that you’re not using the pictures for commercial work and they’re (for) personal use, at that point in time the security officers, and/or the MDT representative should feel that his question is answered and at that point you’re free to take pictures until the next train comes or whatever.” (The irony of this statement will hit you as you continue to read…)
Here is the recording of our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity:
WOW! It all seemed so simple! The only detail that I felt I didn’t clearly understand was something Mr. Muntan called MDT’s “post orders,” which he said set forth the “standard operating procedure” for guards on MDT property, including procedures for enforcing county code section 30b. I asked for a copy of these post orders, even a copy redacted for security purposes, and Mr. Muntan promised to have ask his staff mail it to me. Unfortunately, I never received the document, despite having followed up with Mr. Muntan about it via e-mail.
In any event, because I had read about the county’s well documented problems with the Wackenhut guards who provided security for the MDT stations up until November 3, 2009, I thought it would be judicious of me to chat with a representative of the current company that the county contracts to do the work, “50 State Security,” and get his take on things.
After several phone calls that were never returned, yesterday morning at about 11:30 I finally made contact with the company’s president, John Williams. His interpretation of “30b” and his willingness to trust MDT passengers when they tell his security guards why they’re making pictures was as different from Mr. Muntan’s as day is from night… as fire is from ice… as love is from hate… as steak is from eggs… um, well, you get the picture.
Mr. Williams stated, “All we would know is what you tell us and we would not stand by that. We would ask you to identify yourself and if you didn’t have a permit we would ask you to leave. In fact… you would have to leave or we would notify law enforcement of the situation. We would need approval from the county, a form that the county provides us.” He went on to say that anyone who does not have that form would be prevented from making photographs on MDT property.
Hmmm… a conundrum…
After speaking with Mr. Williams, it seemed to me that the only way to get to the bottom of the situation and to really understand what rights a MDT passenger has or does not have with regard to photography was to head to a nearby metro station, make some photos, and see what would happen.
Though I hoped to make photographs in and around the Douglas Road metro stop to send to my lovely wife in Richmond and to use in my report, and to then be on my merry way, I prepared for the worst. If Mr. Williams’ people were trained as he said they were, rather than as Mr. Muntan said they should be, then there was a decent chance that I would be arrested while making my pictures and go to jail. So I took a few precautions:
- I sent an e-mail to my local attorney, Sam Terilli (yep, the same man who taught my media law class), letting him know where I was going and what I was hoping to do there.
- I wrote Sam’s cell number in permanent ink on several public and not so public places on my body.
- I printed a copy of the e-mail Mr. Muntan sent me that included the text of the “30b” statute and stuck it in my pocket.
Finally, I called my friend Carlos Miller, whose blog, “Photography Is Not a Crime,” may be the most comprehensive database anywhere of incidents of police harassment of photographers. (Carlos says he has chronicled more than 800 such incidents since April, 2007.) I wanted someone to be at the metro stop with me to document anything that was going to happen, and Carlos agreed to meet me at the station with his video camera.
Carlos and I arrived at the station about 2:30pm. I proceeded to make some photos and videos with my Canon 5d Mark II, and Carlos proceed to make videos of me making videos. I can only describe the events that followed as absolutely astounding.
Not astounding because a person in a uniform tried to prevent me from making photographs; astounding because it all took place in the United States of America. We weren’t in Benin, or Zaire, or Brazil, or Outer Mongolia or any of the countries I mentioned at the beginning of this little novella. We were in the United States, once known as the Home of the Free, standing on public property, property that my tax dollars helped to purchase, being denied constitutional rights that my uncle Charles Constance, Jr., in the Battle of the Bulge, my father Charles Edward Ledford in Korea, and my brother Lt. Col. Edward Curtis Ledford who by the time he returns home in March will have spent more than three years in Afghanistan and ten months in Iraq, each selflessly defended.
Carlos and I had not even left the parking lot when a “50 State Security” guard approached me and said that due to “terrorism” it was “against the law” for me to make photographs at the station. From there, things went steadily downhill.
I purchased a ticket so I could ride the metro down to the University of Miami station and back, about a two-dollar investment, but I was physically prevented from entering the turnstile by a “50 State Security” guard. The guards called the Miami Police and three officers eventually arrived. Although I tried to show the officers the e-mail from Mr. Muntan, the chief of security for MDT, the officers either wouldn’t read the e-mail or told me that it was irrelevant and that the private security guards were within their rights to bar me from the station.
Unbelievably, I was told by one of the police officers that if I was to walk through the turnstile and the security guard was to physically detain me, that I would be arrested for assault. Though I kept hoping that cooler heads would prevail, it seemed that the more police officers and security personnel that arrived at the scene, the more adamant and single-minded they became about preventing me from entering the station, with or without a camera. (This in spite of the fact that at least one person with a camera entered the station and another exited the station during the three-plus hours that I spent trying to get in.)
None of the ten or so police officers and security guards that eventually showed up for this little feté – including one individual who claimed to be with Homeland Security – would break rank. The Thin Blue Line was drawn taught, and it was not going to be broken by means of reason, nor facts, nor even a printed copy of the county statute this fraternity was so determined to enforce. Of this they were certain.
They took down both my and Carlos’ identification information, several times actually. A City of Miami cop called me a liar to my face. A Miami-Dade County officer who would only give his name as “S. Ruesga” told me with a straight face that I clearly was making photos for commercial gain because I would gain a “grade” from my professor for this project. He didn’t see the illogic of his statement even when I informed him of he fact that I’m paying the University of Miami about $75,000 to attend graduate school, though I think he appreciated the fact that our conversation had begun to deteriorate into something akin to the “battle of wits” between Vizzini and Westley in “The Princess Bride”:
Here is an audio clip of the similar conversation in which Mr. Ruesga and I found ourselves:
And here’s a clip of the longer conversation. At the end, Mr. Ruesga confesses that he isn’t really clear about the law that he was trying to enforce:
The “homeland security” guy stated more than once that I had actually said that I was making photographs for commercial purposes. Of course because this will probably be his defense in any future legal action that may grow out of this incident, he would not allow me to correct him even though I tried several times.
So eventually, Carlos and I left, but not before getting as many of the officers’ names and badge numbers as possible, and, best of all, not before allowing Sam Terilli to listen over my phone as the “homeland security” guy dared Sam to issue him a subpoena.
Oh… and not before we were informed by several of the brethren that both Carlos and I were now banned for life from riding the Miami-Dade metro. I leave it up to Sam and the courts to ensure that by the middle of August I actually am allowed to ride the metro. I’m planning to ride the trains as I commute to the university for the fall semester, when I start teaching basic photojournalism to malleable young minds that need to understand that the rights they take for granted every day can only be guaranteed if someone is willing to fight back when those rights are threatened.
-Joe Strummer of The Clash
(1952 – 2002)
Be sure to read about the eventual resolution of this debacle here.